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Depressed Man

“Deaths of Despair” Reach Unprecedented Levels in US, Experts Say

Perhaps one of the most objective statistical indicators of the health of a society is the life expectancy of its citizens. In the United States, life expectancy has risen from 69.7 years in 1960 to 78.69 years in 2016, a gradual increase mirroring the success of medical advancements, public health campaigns, and general economic growth over the course of the modern era. However, American life expectancy has been on the decline in recent years, as a result of the epidemic of obesity as well as so-called “deaths of despair,” which include drug overdoses, alcohol abuse, and suicide. 

In a certain sense, this problem is unique to the United States, as other developed nations around the world have not seen a similar, concurrent decline in life expectancy. This worrying development persists despite the fact that the United States spends more on health care per capita than any other developed nation and that the quality of healthcare in the US, for those who are able to receive it, is comparable to that of most advanced countries. As such, experts believe that factors like “income inequality and mental distress” are the root cause of the increase in rates of death across the country, as the experience of despair leads people to make decisions that increase the chances of early death.

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When viewed as a public health issue, the specific factors that lead to early deaths among Americans become clear, as many Americans, even those who do not suffer from diseases of despair, can recognize the social factors that lead to the development of these illnesses either through their personal lived experiences or through the experiences of people they know. According to Anne Case, a contributing author of the book “Deaths of Despair and the Future of Capitalism,”  “the pillars that once helped give life meaning—a good job, a stable home life, a voice in the community—have all eroded.” 

In Case’s account, the nationwide rise in despair has its roots in economic and political factors, as workers without college degrees have been left out of the increasingly-harsh labor market, men’s wages have remained stagnant for half a century, and companies have been eliminating decent-paying jobs with good benefits, instead outsourcing low-skill work to cheaper economies. Despite the changes in the distribution of wealth in the American economy, the government has failed to adjust to changes wrought by the rapid and accelerating pace of technological innovation and globalization, generating an atmosphere of despair among much of the American public, Case argues.

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While the highly-complex relationship between societal factors, despair, unhealthy behaviors, and early death requires more study, experts view the rise of drug abuse, particularly opioid abuse, as symptomatic of larger social pressures that reduce in people a sense of their meaning in life, instilling in them an attitude of nihilism and apathy that drives them to make unhealthy choices in pursuit of relief from their suffering. According to one study, rates of overdoses and suicides have been on the rise since the 1990s, suggesting that the problem is not just related to the current political environment, but also to longstanding social trends as well as substantial increases in the availability of illicit drugs. 

That being said, there are signs of hope that society is beginning to tackle the public health crisis of despair, as the stigma surrounding mental illness has diminished in recent years and an increasing number of businesses are prioritizing the health of their employees, including when it comes to problems like drug addiction and mental illness. If you’re experiencing despair, keep in mind that there exist resources to help with mental health problems, including the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1-800-273-8255), which is available 24 hours a day.